This year’s Umushyikirano ended on Friday, December 14. The next one will be held next December.
But even though we know this, and it has been happening for sixteen years now, and indeed for longer than that since it is a very Rwandan forum, Umushyikirano remains a new, fresh and relevant experience each time.
Familiarity has not dampened our expectations.
It shows the spirit of our nation: with us all – leaders and citizens - frankly talking about all manner of national issues, publicly holding each other to account, showing a rare willingness to reveal what ails us and, more importantly, what can heal us, and exposing our limitations but also how to overcome them.
It is a wonderful moment of self-examination and rededication that also reveals our resilience and determination.
At every Umushyikirano for the past sixteen years Rwandans have asked many questions of their government, criticised where things were not going as expected, suggested improvements and made requests. In recent times there has been more gratitude for what is going well, testimonies of citizens’ progress, and what can be done better.
Still, some requests continue to be made. A Rwandan living in Canada asked the government to help them teach their children Kinyarwanda and Rwandan culture. This is not the first time this request has been made.
It is, of course, a reasonable and justifiable request. Rwandan children born and raised outside the country should know the language and culture of their country of origin and the state has the duty to ensure that they do.
However, that is only one side of the story and leaves out an equally or even more important part - the responsibility of parents in the education of their children with regard to language and culture.
In a sense it is an admission, if unwitting, of the abdication of this responsibility. And it is not only those in the diaspora guilty of this. Even those here at home are culpable.
The first place where language is learnt is the home, and later the community. In fact, we learn the language before we go school.
And so school only comes in to formalise what has already been learnt. But this does not seem to be happening here. Everything has been left to the school.
There are indeed families here where both parents are Rwandan but their children cannot speak a single word of Kinyarwanda. Some even derive pride from this inability.
For these it is a sign of sophistication and proof of having graduated to another class. Woe to anyone who has the temerity to point out to them that they are misguided.
Clearly, even as we address the inadequacies of our education system, there is a lot to correct, including attitudes and self-esteem.
And before the minister of education can make promises to Rwandans abroad, he must first address the issue of language education in general. The problem is not with Kinyarwanda only but with other languages as well. Except for children in well-endowed schools, the level of language proficiency is generally low.
The major issue is how languages are taught. They are taught as a set of rules and structures almost separate from how people use them in given situations. They are not taught as a means of communication in different contexts.
The emphasis is more on teaching and testing, and less on learning and communication. Teachers do not pay enough attention, if at all, on the basic skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. These are the elements that constitute language as used by people in all forms of communication.
In addition, there is limited exposure to language as used in ordinary human intercourse outside the language classroom, and as every language expert will tell you, language is best learnt in an environment of daily usage.
Speaking and listening are the primary vehicles of exposure in language acquisition. Children learn by listening and repeating what they hear. Parents, whether in Rwanda or abroad, should provide this learning environment before seeking additional assistance.
Reading too is an important aspect of language acquisition. But in our public schools there is hardly any reading beyond the prescribed course book. It is not due to lack of appropriate reading materials, local publishers, such as Editions Bakame, produce plenty of them.
The problem rather is the absence of models and encouragement. Teachers and parents, including literate ones, cannot provide this as they themselves hardly read.
There is therefore a bigger problem to solve: the belief that once children enrol in school, responsibility for their education, including language and culture, is removed from parents and passed on to teachers.
To fix it, as President Paul Kagame pointed out at this year’s Umushyikirano, everyone – parents, community, teachers and educational institutions – has to reclaim their role.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.